Disclaimer: I own nothing, except for my numerous OCs.
A.N: Set nowhere specific towards the beginning of season seven.
A.N#2: Written to all three Game of Thrones soundtracks, particularly "Winterfell."
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Pound of Flesh
By the time you read this, there's a good chance I'm dead.
There is no reason why you should continue reading, and honestly, I don't care. As far as narrations go, you've seen it before: some hapless humans die, hunters come, a bloodbath ensues. Those seeking heroic characters, dazzling plot twists, or anything resembling morality will find themselves disappointed. Because there is none here; there never was. This is, however, a story about survival, about family. About fighting . . . and dying. That, you'll find in spades. I should probably warn you I'm not human, and as far as soulless creatures go, I'm the cowardly, self-serving type. That's how I've survived this long, and in a world that deals harshly with non-humans such as myself, it's a good rule to follow. Keep your head down, don't attract attention, and never, ever, ever kill a human. Because if you do, you'll draw hunters, and if you're spectacularly unlucky, as I was not too long ago, you might find yourself in the crosshairs of two particular brothers.
This is not a happy tale. Blood and destruction seem to follow the Winchesters like stench after carrion, and this tragedy is no exception. So, why should you even care? Honestly, I have no idea. You're human. You depend on hunters to protect you from creatures like me. They're your first and last line of defense, your teeth and claws. I, skinwalker as I am, won't take that from you; without them, there'd be no consequence if we killed your kind, no reason for us to cower like we are now. So read on if you so choose. If you dare.
Because it's one thing to be the hunter, and quite another being the hunted.
I am not normal.
I knew I was different from my childhood playmates very early on in life. I won't bore you with the details of my transformation, only know I was still young enough to believe stepping on a crack would break my mother's back. A quick bite, and bam: in the seconds it took for the skinwalker's saliva to enter my bloodstream and mingle with my cells, all my ties to humanity were severed. The world became an explosion of smells and sounds. I remember the irresistible, inexplicable urge to get down on all fours and run through a forest, a field, a meadow, anything: the desire to run and chase and be chased filled me with such completeness many times I thought I was dying. The sense of purpose was so pure then, like mountain water, that to this day I sometimes yearn for my youth, when everything was so simple. Not messy, like it is now.
Our family had a dog growing up. A German shepherd. Her name was Brownie, on account of those big, soulful eyes of hers. She was first to discover my transformation. When I stumbled in the house, still shaky and sweaty, she'd leapt from her bed and started barking in a way she only did towards other dogs. She rushed at me. Seventy pounds of fur and muscle had me flat on my back in seconds and my mother shouting No, Brownie! Bad dog! But in the moments before my mother could grab her collar and yank her off, Brownie hovered over me, teeth bared and lips wrinkled, ears cocked in such a dominating display my first instinct was to submit. And I would've too, had it not been for my own curdling lips peeled back from my blunt human teeth, and the rest . . . well, the rest became kind of hazy, like remembering a dream. Afterwards, in a shaky, awed tone, my older brother recounted how I had used my forearm to block her snapping head and used the other hand to yank Brownie's leg from under her. As the shepherd fell, I rolled atop and straddled her chest, all the while sounding like I chewed nails. I bit her nose, hard.
It was over in seconds.
My family sold Brownie soon after the incident. She was the first of a long line of lessons I'd receive growing up, but hers was the most important: I was no longer human. I could pretend and play dress-up all I wanted, but the basic foundation had been morphed beyond all recognizable shape. The coldness in my chest marked the loss of my soul, twisting where it was into a void as yawning and empty as the space between stars. There was nothing there. No light. No dark. Just the inescapable urge to run and be free and feel the grass beneath my naked feet. When I'm feeling nostalgic I sometimes think of her, because she represented the best and worst time of my life. The best, because everything was simple. The worst, because she also marked the beginning of my mother and brother's unease and distrust. Both of them had seen a seven year old flip and dominate a shepherd with little problem, not to mention the 'unholy sound that came out of that child's mouth.' Then came little things, like wanting to run on all fours, or wanting to howl at the swollen moon. Snarling at anyone who seemed threatening. Growling. Whining. My parents brushed it off as a phase. My older brother ignored me. But one day I caught the schoolyard bully Dusty Miller pushing my best friend off a swing, and there was no thought. I ran over and bit him like I bit Brownie.
The taste of human blood was indescribable. It was like the heavy scent of ozone and radon and salt all rolled up in electricity. The worse part was I liked it. I liked the taste of it, the sheer robustness of its flavor, which made me crave his heart; the sour fear rolling off Dusty's skin only heightened the experience. I don't remember much of it, but apparently I had to be beaten off Dusty. He received twenty-three stitches and transferred one week later. My friend never thanked me, though sometimes I could tell it was because her parents told her not to talk to me.
Soon after the Dusty incident, my parents hired a child psychiatrist. I recognized her instantly as the woman who bit and transformed me. Her face was kind but her eyes were cold. I begged my parents not to lock me in a room with her, but she'd been playing the game far longer than I had. Whatever she said or did, it had convinced my parents she was used to 'cases like mine.' I was trapped. Her name was Dr. Namrata. Her black hair and eyes betrayed her Indian heritage, but they didn't expose an ounce of compassion. Twenty years later I can still recall her clinical, dispassionate gaze.
I hated her instantly.
"So," she had said, once the door was closed and my parents gone. "Your name is Beverly." Without waiting for my response, she continued, "Do you know why you're here?"
Because I hated her, I didn't answer. Perhaps my childish rebellion peaked some cold humor in her, because the following smile was quick and crisp. "That attitude of yours won't last, child, but I'll let it pass for today. You're here because you bit a schoolmate. Do you know why you did that?" Again, without waiting for a response, she said, "You're a skinwalker now."
Curiosity overpowered my mulish silence. "What's that?" I asked.
And she told me.
Over the course of many sessions to come, she explained the nature of what I was and how my life as a human was behind me. Again, I won't bore you with the countless hours spent in that airless box, nor with the lessons dwelt beneath her harsh tutelage, only that she became my 'walker mother. A cold, unloving mother, but a mother nonetheless. I know now, without her help, I would've died long ago. Though it was a lot to absorb for a seven year old, some deep instinct told me this was a sink-or-swim course. She taught me how to live with my canine side, how to control it. How to shift. How to blend in with local dogs. How to survive the hierarchy of actual 'walker packs. Biting, I learned, was how we transmitted the virus. Dusty Miller, the bully I sank my teeth into, was now one of us, but unlike me, he didn't have a mentor to guide him through the treacherous learning-curve. I never knew what befell him. Probably killed by a hunter. Or hit by a car. I never cared to find out. I was told it was my duty to turn humans, but only when I was ready for exactly that reason.
Perhaps the most important lesson I gleaned from her was how to deflect attention from those who wanted to kill our kind. Hunters, they were called, and they were to be avoided at all costs. Some were more famous than others, and Dr. Namrata made me memorize the scents collected of such dangerous men and women. One family name stood out among the rest: the Winchesters. A certain John Winchester, to be exact. He had a body count to rival mercenaries during wartime. He had two living heirs—sons, the both of them, Sam and Dean. They were roughly my age at the time, but Dr. Namrata warned me they would grow up to be as dangerous as their sire, if not more, since there was a chance they'd work as a team. Hunters, too, could hunt in packs, Dr. Namrata said, and would not hesitate to kill me despite my young age.
As with all things, our time together eventually came to an end. As my behavior improved, my parents saw fit to release me from Dr. Namrata's clutches. I was not sorry. I was not the first human she'd turned, nor the last. There was no humanity in her left, no spark of warmth in her inkblot eyes. To her, I was nothing but another slim possibility of success, and like a mother snake to her eggs, she left me to fend on my own in the wide world. I had vowed, then, not to become her. I vowed I would never rob a human of their soul as she'd done mine. I kept that promise for many years, through middle- and high- school, no matter how tempting it was to rend through flesh and devour a still-beating heart. I'd like to believe the latter oath stemmed from strong morals, but the truth was darker than that: of all Dr. Namrata's teachings, the fear of the hunters remained the strongest. I had an animal's instinct for life now, a grip more primal and tenacious than a human's careful veneer. I didn't want to be hunted down and shot like the dog I was. So I was careful. I stuck to backwater towns. Moved around a lot. Kept my head down. Twenty years flew by in heartbeats, and I started to think myself invincible.
Until, of course, my first mistake.
The rabbit was fast.
She darted across the valley like quicksilver, tail flashing like the white flag of surrender. Her heartbeat was staticky panic, screaming. She knew I was gaining. My claws dug into the soil as I scrabbled for traction, my breath scalding my throat. In reality no more than thirty seconds had passed since the chase started, but time was molasses in moments like these. Despite my aching muscles I plunged forward, belly scraping the dead grass as I lunged after her. I could smell her fur and the blood beneath it, and beneath them both was her heart, hot and overpowering. Dirt peppered my muzzle. I closed in. The primal urge swelled to the point of pain and I allowed it to crash over me, cleaning away all conscience until nothing but the desire to rend flesh remained. The doe tried to feint, but fate was cruel. Her muscles had betrayed her seconds before, and in her last attempt to survive, she drove herself into my waiting jaws. Her scream was high and piteous as my teeth crunched through her hindquarters and chest. It was over. Salty blood and matted fur coated my tongue as she hung between my jaws, nothing but a warm, bleeding weight.
Instinct told me to seek cover, not to remain seen in the open. It wouldn't be the first time some impressionable trigger-happy outdoorsman mistook me for a wolf. Here in Emigrant, Montana, home of fly-fishers and big-game hunters, there was always a gun lurking around. No silver, thankfully, but still. Bullets hurt. I gathered my prize and loped towards a copse of trees, the scent of fresh rabbit nearly overpowering the crisp promise of snow on the air. When I stopped beneath an old quaking aspen I devoured her whole. The heart I saved for last. It had a texture and huskiness different than any other part of the body. Robust, creamy in all the right places, electrifying in others, it was no wonder others of my kind hunted man to consume his heart. Thinking about it made strings of drool dribble from my peeled lips. I could eat a thousand rabbits and still remain unsatisfied.
It was the most forbidden of fruits: better than chasing, better than fighting, better than sex. The joy of burying your teeth a human's heart, I heard, was indescribable. Orgasmic.
The forest bled around me as I traveled westward through Paradise Valley towards Emigrant Peak, the highest point for twenty clicks. The scenery gradually changed from plateau to a higher elevation, the duff becoming gravely scree as poplar and beech gave way to stunted pine and fir. Several jays scolded when I startled them from their needled perches. Yes, eating a human would be the greatest thing in the world, but I knew there'd be repercussions to that action. Not from normal humans, though. Normal humans loved denial. They were more willing to turn a blind eye and ignore their instincts than acknowledge something evil and unnatural. Their history was riddled with examples of this, like the towns nearest to Auschwitz's crematories refusing to mention the hideous stench of burning flesh. They knew what was happening. In their hearts, they knew. If there were only those types of humans in this world, I probably would've killed a human or two by now, I won't deny.
But hunters are different. Hunters were a different breed, cut from a deadlier cloth. Hunters were canny. They could pick up on the odd and spot the supernatural. If humans started popping up mangled beyond recognition, hearts chewed away, it would only be a matter of time before they flocked over like buzzards at a carcass. I've seen it happen before.
The tangy aroma of camp smoke, wood shavings, and wool hung in the air like a beacon, and I found myself hastening towards it, claws clicking against the bare rockface. Minutes later a small hunting cabin appeared from around a copse of white pine, as rugged and hard as its surroundings. White smoke chugged from the tin vent, curling in the crisp autumn filament like cat whiskers. A lone human was splitting wood the old-fashioned way, just beyond the wraparound porch. It was like watching clockwork. The maul slammed down again and again, the craaacckk distinct. Familiar. Comforting. I could smell her sweat and leather gloves, the scent that was uniquely hers.
The chopping stopped. I pulled out of my reverie and saw she was looking at me, expression unreadable. Her face was always hard to read. I wagged my tail once, twice, before dipping behind the trees again. The chopping resumed. Before, I would've had a rifle blast aimed at my face; now I knew there'd be leftover chicken or elk meat waiting for me when I got back.
I was breaking my first rule, and I knew it. It'd been years since I'd moved on, and I knew why: I was getting comfortable. Over the years I've come to love the Absaroka mountain range and its hard, rugged people. Thirty miles from Yellowstone National Park, this place contained a cruel beauty few places on earth possessed. But cruelty wasn't what I sought. This woman struck a chord in me that, if I still had a soul, would've burned for her. Her name, I learned, was Mameha. Not once had I seen or smelled anyone visit her, though sometimes she climbed into her mud-spattered jeep and descended into Emigrant, the nearby town of four hundred souls. A loner, through and through. A handsome woman, hair like ink and eyes like almonds, but a stern, unsmiling mouth. Her scent was a mixture of leather, woodsmoke, sweat, and mint. Maybe it was a fallacy or self-indulgence, but over the five years I've come to see her as home. Not physical comfort—she never allowed me in the cabin, nor shown sign of inviting me in. She never petted me or allowed me near. Maybe if I looked like a poodle or lab, a breed tamed and true, she would've been more inclined. As it was, I knew my appearance was too wolfish, my ears and snout too angular, my coat too gray.
Life would've been easier if my canine guise were a pug's. Or a terrier's. Something simple to slip into a child's heart undetected, not something that had mothers worrying and fathers disapproving. I knew I drew stares when I padded through human towns, and my human figure was no better. Both human males and females have always been drawn to me, even at eighteen when I left home. It's your eyes, they always said. Somethin bout the way you look, baby. Feral. Kinda hot. Which at that point the conversation usually degenerated into more carnal pursuits, which I was more than happy to enjoy.
Sex was simple. Sticking around wasn't.
At this elevation there was nothing but spruce and stunted pine, but even their sweet resin couldn't mask the unmistakable odor of another dog-not-dog. I smelled the familiar scent long before I heard the baying call of another 'walker. I didn't reply. I knew Solomon already found me. Taking one last look at the cabin—I'll be back for the chicken—I headed toward the other of my kind, quickening my pace without realizing it. Frost crinkled under my paws as the elevation sloped low. The mountain started to gentle back into the open countryside of the valley, the sky above one giant blue dome.
Solomon exploded off a boulder, body rounded in a perfect bow, paws outstretched and mouth wide open. It was a simple matter to side-step his attack and, when he was still catching his footing, slam our shoulders together. Already off-balance, he pitched to his side, yelping. Within seconds I stood over him, nose to nose, grinning a mouthful of teeth. He remained whining and contrite for all of five seconds before snapping and wriggling to be let free. I waited another moment before stepping aside, laughing the best I could with my panting tongue. He shook the sand from his black and white coat, then launched at me again. We spent a few minutes tussling. I was bigger than him by a quite a few margins, dominating his forty pounds with my ninety. But his canine guise had been built to hunt bears, and if I wasn't careful, I knew his broad jaws and quicksliver snaps could give me a few holes in my hide.
At some point Solomon broke off and began to tear headlong across the valley. It was the morning hunt with the rabbit all over again, except inexplicably different. I gave chase, and we fell into a rhythm as old as the world, neither of us gaining or losing, bellies stretched out as the world flew by. In those moments everything was crystal clear, like it all made sense and nothing else mattered. But epiphanies were capricious and ephemeral. Despite our strength as 'walkers, we eventually began to tire. By mutual consent we slowed down, the desire bleeding away, until nothing remained but two foolish monsters tuckered out from a breakneck gallop.
We were close to the town now, the road leading into Emigrant winding like a dirt snake. I could pick out the low-slung houses, and beyond it, U.S Route 89. We stopped a moment, panting. Solomon snorted, his curled circle of a tail twitching once. Then he headed away from it. Wise choice. We padded abreast at a ground-eating lope, a southwesterly wind ruffling at our fur, bringing scents of pine, river water, and sage. After awhile another smell brought me up short. I didn't realize I'd stopped until Solomon doubled back, curly tail wagging. He whined and attempted to lick my jowl, then pranced away in clear entreaty. Only after a few repetitions of this did I finally cave in, though this time at a slower pace. Solomon showed no reservations. The closer we came to the foot hills of the mountain, the peppier his step became. No wonder why. We were nearing his pack's territory.
I didn't like packs. Packs drew attention, and not the good kind.
Five years ago I should've left the moment I became aware of their existence, but by then I'd met the woman in the woods. I was making excuses, of course. Not since my human brother had I had anything resembling a familiar companionship. Solomon and the woman in the cabin gave me a sense of belonging I didn't realize I craved. 'Walkers were not meant to be loners; Dr. Namrata taught me that. Pack mentality was infused in our psyche. Resisting the urge to join my kind—like resisting the urge to kill and eat humans—took more willpower than I cared admit. I was weak. I never could withstand all the way. Not officially joining a pack, of course, made it easier to cut my losses and flee when a hunter came calling.
A rickety old cabin, not unlike the one the woman had, appeared into view. It was downright shabby. It listed to one side, the rotten wood sagging under its own weight. It greeted us with all the cankerous disposition of a wart. We entered it anyway, bullying the old wooden door open with our jaws and shoulders. Darkness greeted us: mildew and wet fur and creosote slapped my nose like a hooker with two inch nails. I must've made a sound of disgust because Solomon hung out his tongue with laughter.
Then he shifted.
As far as transformations go, it was pretty seamless. I've known shapeshifters, and their transitions were disgusting. At least we 'walkers left nothing behind, and in the seconds it took for me to turn my head, Solomon was upright and naked. I followed suit moments later, feeling like eggs were cracking over my body as fur became skin and hair. The cold hair hit me like a splash of seaspray. While uncomfortable, it wasn't intolerable. A normal human wouldn't've lasted long in these conditions naked, but again, we weren't normal.
Sometimes it was great not being human.
We weren't ashamed of our nakedness, and with almost businesslike mien we dug around in the old chest for any clothing that'd fit. I chose a worn pair of Levi jeans, black shirt, and a sweater. It was a little gaudy for my taste, but it did its job cutting the wind. We walked the quarter mile through the woods, passed the 'NO TRESPASSERS – NO HUNTING' sign and wooden fence, crossed one of the nameless streams bisecting Emigrant, and trudged up the dirt path to a larger, well-kept hunting cabin. It belonged to Raider, Solomon's pack leader. Again, I couldn't help comparing this one to Mameha's. It was much bigger than her's, designed to house at least ten bodies comfortably. It crouched at the start of Emigrant Peak with a foreboding air, the windows blacked out and shuttered, an ironic 'Beware of Dog' tacked to a porch beam in big bold orange letters. All what was missing to complete the picture was a couple of rednecks sitting on the porch with shotguns and cheap beer.
Solomon scrounged for the key as I stood guard. The air was warmer, but not by much. The sunlight filtered through the surrounding spruce needles, dappling the red duff gold. All traces of the morning's frost was gone. It was nearing noon now, and the rabbit I'd eaten was long in the past. My stomach rumbled. If there's one good thing about pack life, it's they don't let anyone starve.
The door opened behind me.
"After you," Solomon said, not quite able to hide a smile.
I crinkled my nose. "Manners? Who are you and what did you do with Solomon?"
"Aw, that almost hurt my feelings."
I smiled and entered the house. 'House' was a kind word to describe the premise, but it had a fireplace, couches, kitchen area, loft, and beds. I've seen much worse.
"I'll get a fire going," Solomon said, moving towards the empty fireplace. Like me, he was used to rustling up a heat source, and in no time at all a cheery blaze chuffed away. It chased away the humidity trying to make a home in our bones. I bent to it and soothed my digits. Winter was coming, reminding me why many of our kind either migrated south or infiltrated humans' homes so to avoid the months of bitter cold. Only a small percentage of us braved winter as dogs, unable to or unwilling to travel south or, like me, have a form not particularly conducive to home life. Of course, there were exceptions to every rule. Like Solomon's pack leader, some tried to pass off as humans. Tax-paying, God-fearing, church-going humans. I myself was too paranoid to do this. Easier to run as a dog than pose as a human.
We sat side by side in front of the fire, comfortable with each other's silence, enjoying both the heat from the blaze and the warmth of the pressed bodies. He'd been the first of the pack to welcome me all those years ago. He was fourteen then, a pup by our standards. Perhaps he, being the omega, simply wanted a playmate. I, pariah that I was, didn't mind the company. I started sticking around, he'd seek me out, and without us aware of it, a friendship solidified. I liked him. He wasn't a dick. As far as I could tell, he hadn't killed any humans. You could tell the ones who did. There was a sharpness in their focus, an easy confidence lacking in the usual rank-and-file that said they'd tasted the indescribable, they were killers now, and they liked it. Like the man-eating tigers in India's mangroves, they'd lost their fear of humans. Their type typically didn't last long. Killing the sheep of the human population lulled them in a false sense of security. Any hunter worth his salt didn't find killing us a problem—a little sliver bullet, and bam: instant roadkill.
"You look like you bit into something rotten," Solomon said. "What's eating you?"
"Hunters," I said.
Solomon shifted, pulling away.
"Jeeze, Bev, what brought that on? You don't think. . .?"
"What? No, no. No, I was just thinking about them in general."
Solomon nodded, but I could tell it was still bothering him. My suspicions were justified when he asked,
"Have you ever met any?"
I grimaced. "Five. Once in Oregon, twice in New Hampshire, the other two in Missouri and North Carolina. Nasty sons of bitches."
"Really? What happened?"
I shrugged. "They came. They killed. They left. Does the story ever change?"
"Why? Why doesn't anything change?" Solomon was sour. Though he never knew the fate of his sire, he suspected a hunter had something to do with it. I leaned forward and kissed his head. He smelled sweetly of musk, fresh air, and cloves. Beneath it all was the tell-tale tang of skinwalker aroma, that no matter the 'walker, always reminded me of sunbaked fur. He remained pensive, but eventually relaxed. When I pulled away, he sighed through his nose.
"Well, you clearly got away," he said. "How'd you manage that?"
"I was smart and ran."
"Ran?" He frowned and gave me a queer look, like I'd grown a second head. "But, what about your pack?"
Oh, Solomon. I pretended the memories of my decimated 'packs' still haunted me, and I schooled my face into a pained expression. So when I said, "Let's talk about something else," he was more than willing to agree.
"Sure," he said. "Are there any cards?"
So the topic of hunters fell to the wayside and was soon forgotten as our afternoon became filled with games. The sunlight from the skylights was bronzing to the molten gold of the late afternoon when the second 'walker of Solomon's pack appeared.
"Why am I not surprised. Having fun with your girlfriend, kid? Fuck her yet?"
"Leave her alone, Ace," Solomon said the same time I snapped, "Lay off."
Ace honed in on me, eyes bright. "What? Not showing your teeth to a pack member, I hope."
Ace was a dick. Was from the get-go. I suppose that was his job—as Raider's beta, he was supposed to enforce order and scare away unwanted tagalongs. But seeing how I was neither complete stranger nor full-fledged member, the abuse was sort of a gray area. I smiled the same smile Dr. Namrata bestowed me, crisp and cold, and to my relief Ace moved on to other torments. By the time the sun dipped behind the horizon and the lights were turned on, six others had made their appearance. Like Solomon and me, they came from the woods dressed in mildew-stained clothes. Only Raider the pack leader pretended he was human, so when he walked through the door, tired and reeking faintly of slaughterhouse, he wore office clothes. Jen, his top bitch, hurried over to welcome him, throwing her arms over his neck and roundly kissing him. Raider smiled through his beard, the warmth palpable even from the other end of the room. I liked Raider. Though he, like everyone in this room, was soulless, there was something comforting about him. He played by the same rules I followed. Ran a tight ship. Rumor was he killed another 'walker over a disagreement about a human's death. Now, I have very little love for humans—the woman in the woods being the exception—but to kill another of our kind over some human's honor was exceptional. Perhaps Raider had a liaison with that person. Though silver can do us in, the only other way to kill a skinwalker was to tear them apart. Literally. Like, disembowelment by wood chipper. That kind of violence. I knew I'd do the same if anyone threatened Mameha, but not for any random human.
"Get a room you two!" someone shouted, to which Jen, without looking back, flipped the one finger salute to the room. Laughter broke out.
"How's it goin, Raider?"
"Yeah, what's for grub?"
"Hold your horses, dammit," Raider said, freeing himself from Jen's grasp to wrap a forearm around her waist. The others scattered like chaff, giving ground with the inherent ease of a pack well-accustomed to their leader's power. By unspoken consent we all made our way to the dining room with the giant table. Some sat at the table or, like me, leaned against the counters and walls.
"Alright, alright, settle down." After another moment of shoving and token chair-scraping, all ears perked towards Raider. Under the 70's-style tiffany stainglass lamp, there seemed to be hollows under his eyes where none where before, giving him the illusion of exhaustion. After a quick silent headcount, he grunted, "Anyone seen Summer?"
Everyone looked at Cutlass—no one knew his human birth name—but the big 'walker looked on placidly until Raider cleared his throat and moved on.
"As you know, hunting season is still in taking place. Yes, normal bullets can't kill us, but I'd rather not risk head shots. That means you, Amelia," he said, eying the brunette bitch. She stuck out her tongue in good-natured fashion; a daredevil at heart, she could always be counted on drawing a rifleman's aggravated shot when she purposely scared herds of elk. She'd been shot before, but hardly anyone hunted with silver these days. She healed so quickly not a single scar was left to prove it.
"Stay away from the south bend in the Yellowstone river for a time. Apparently there's a big who-how of fly fishers heading out there to check the brown trout this weekend, so steer clear."
"Sweet hell, anywhere we can go?"
Raider ignored Amelia and continued, "The St. Louis Cardinals—"
More equable groans scattered across the room. Only Cutlass stared unblinking at the alpha with unerring focus, bracing his weight on his two meaty forearms as he leaned across the dining table.
"—won six to one over the Pirates."
Cutlass clenched a fist and nodded once in satisfaction. The rest hooted and guffawed.
"Think they might make it to the playoffs this year?" another 'walker said. Like Cutlass, everyone knew her only by her nickname. Hers was Blackcat. She was leaning against a counter, winking. Everyone chuckled a little, enjoying a break from the serious stuff. Even Raider's beard twitched before he gruffed for quiet again.
"One last thing, then we can eat. Some squatters came to town this morning, so you know the drill."
"How many?" Jen asked.
"Just three, but we still want to be careful. I could smell their reek from my office."
Murmurs rumbled around the dining room. I myself couldn't help but cringe. Humans, especially unclean ones, stank. By now Ace and another 'walker named Marcus had returned with a big Styrofoam box. Even over the cheap, sterile smell of plastic was the unmistakable aroma of hearts. Cow hearts, fresh from the slaughterhouse. Saliva pooled in my mouth and I had to swallow several times. I wasn't the only one. The tension in the room, while typical before, sharpened. Those leaning or standing took their place by the dining table, and the shoving took on a more competitive, dominant vibe. I remained where I was by the wall. I didn't have the pack-member status to be guaranteed food, and I wasn't about to press my luck. Ace distributed the fist-sized hunks of cardiac muscle around until the box was empty. Solomon threw me a look over his shoulder, two parts apology, one part regret, but I waved it off. I comforted myself with the knowledge of the food waiting for me back at the woman's cabin.
The sound of wet gnawing and swallowing filled the room. As the others tucked in I noticed Ace whisper in Raider's ear. Raider nodded once, gaze flicking over to mine with the unerring precision of someone aware of everyone in the room. I had a suspicion of what they were talking about, and it was confirmed when Raider made his way over. I was tall for a female, and thought we almost saw eye-to-eye, I still fought the urge to not bear my throat in deference.
"Beverly," he said. He smelled of office-space, copier ink, and the faint, metallic aroma of cow's blood.
"Didn't expect you."
"Yeah. Went running with Solomon and ended up here," I said.
He nodded gravely, as if I declared I had cancer.
"I didn't bring enough hearts this time for you, and for that, I'm sorry."
I smiled in thanks.
"You know, you could always become a member. I know about your reservations, but just think it over. You're around us enough to be pack."
There were many things already on my tongue, the same old excuses I'd been using for years: I liked to move around, didn't want to stay tied down, hunters found packs easier than loners, etc, etc. All of them covered the shameful truth: I had no loyalty. The whole 'stay true to the pack and family' crap only worked for idiots willing to die. Raider's pack wasn't the first I'd gravitated to. When hunters came, I cut my loses and ran, every time. Solomon didn't know that, nor would I want him to. But before I could run through my empty platitudes, a powerful whiff of blood filled my nose. Raider smelled it too, because he instantly turned towards the door. It opened and in stumbled Summer, the last 'walker of Raider's pack. He was in his human form, naked. Chairs scraped against the floor as everyone stood to get a better look. Something hard locked in my chest as my face went cold. The blood cover Summer's mouth, chest, and hands weren't his. It was human. Cutlass was first by Summer's side, not saying anything, his big hands cradling the other's thin shoulders. Noise began to fill the room like helium in a balloon.
"Whoa, what happened?"
"You're covered in blood!"
"No shit he's covered in blood, dumbass."
"Summer, you okay?"
"Everyone, calm down!" Raider barked. Within seconds all sound died, leaving all but Summer's heavy, shuttered breathing. His face was wet with tears and tacky fluid.
"Tell us what happened," Raider said, sharp and cold. He, too, smelled the human blood and all its connotations.
"I'm sorry, I'm so, so suh-sorry. I-I-I went into town, looking for fuh-food like I usually do, an-and there were these pe-people, new people. They had hamburger, and I was huh-hungry. When I got cl-close, they put a roh-rope around my neck and started kicking me! I didn't kn-know what else to do!"
"Slow down," Raider said, but by then the other burst into shrilly tears. The pack leader tried again. "What did you do with the bodies?" He sounded as grim as all of us felt.
Summer shook his head.
"The bodies! What did you do with them?"
"Leave'm alone," Cutlass grunted, but Raider covered the room in two steps and hauled the crying 'walker up by the neck. Blackcat, Juan, and Ace held Cutlass back as Raider shook the smaller male once roughly.
"I ate them!" Summer bawled. "I ate them—I'm so sorry, I couldn't help it, I killed them and they were dead and their hearts were right there, I know you don't want us t-tuh-to but I did!"
Raider released his pack member and stepped back. The others did the same with Cutlass, and good thing, too. The big 'walker looked ready to crack skulls, but was gentle as a deer when he covered Summer in a blanket. Raider sighed through his nose and scrubbed at his face.
"Clean him up," he said to Cutlass, "and when he's calm, bring him to me. I want to know exactly what happened."
Jen and Ace peeled off with Raider in a low-toned discussion while the others went to help Cutlass with Summer. The blood-covered 'walker had reverted to his greyhound form and was shaking like a poplar leaf. Solomon joined them, and I decided it was time to make my departure. With all the confusion, it was a simple matter to slip out the door. It was pitch night now, with some light from the crescent moon. If I were human I'd been stumbling all the way to the cabin, but I saw everything in a readable gray. The urge to run burned at my calves and feet, but I forced myself to walk to the creosote-saturated cabin. I shucked my borrowed clothes into the chest until I stood as naked as Summer had been, my nipples peaking in the cold night air. It all went away when I shifted, warmth enveloping my like an electric blanket. My nails clicked against the rotten floorboards before falling silent on the spongy ground. Then, and only then, did I give way to the desire to be lost. Worries fell away.
I don't know how long I ran, a silvery suggestion under the Montana sky, only that when I arrived at the woman's cabin, my flanks were shivering and steam rose from my coat. The lights were on, casting warm orange shadows on the cold ground, and as I stood just out their reach, I experienced the dull phantom pain where my soul once lay. A tumultuous whine escaped before I realized the sound came from me. Restless, angry at the ache and confused at the sudden contention, I fell upon the chicken with a violence that surprised even me.
Morning appeared covered in powdered sugar and smelled just as sweet, but its beauty was lost on me. It'd been roughly three days since Summer killed and ate the three humans, and this counted as my second vigil. After scavenging a deer kill, I made my way into town. I could smell some of the other 'walkers nearby; thanks to the ban Raider placed on town, they were nearer to the woman's cabin than ever. I myself had no such restrictions.
Emigrant was one of my typical backwater haunts: tight-knit, quiet, less than four hundred souls. People rarely settled here, and like all small towns, it didn't invite strangers to stay. As I padded through I noticed the town was still hushed, as if shocked something this heinous could happen in their sleepy don't-bother-us-we-won't-bother-you home. The metallic scent of blood was still a punch to the gut. The black and yellow POLICE LINE, DO NOT CROSS snapped and fluttered in the rising wind. The humans had lured Summer in the perfect spot. It was in a back alley, next to the old abandoned bowling alley and the hardware store. Right on the edge of town, too, just a jump from the countryside. The blood had been reduced to a ruddy stain on the pavement. I pretended to sniff around the garbage for scraps while focusing on the lone police car lurking around the corner. The human inside looked bored, staring vacantly out his windshield. Good. Not a hunter. With all the refuse in the air it was hard to distinguish anything else. I moved off, satisfied there were no new scents and no suspicious characters, but deep in my mind I knew that meant nothing. The disembowelment and consumption of three random humans would bring them. But, on the other hand, there was always a chance the phenomenon would fall to the wayside.
"Hey! Git! Git outta here!"
I beat a hasty retreat, crossing the boundary of the town, watching pavement turn into gravel, gravel to dirt, until I stood atop a grassy knoll. In the distance was the tell-tale glint off a windshield leaving I-89. I waited long enough to see it was a dusty black Impala before I moved off. A stiff northwest gust, bitter cold for October, brought sage, snow, and the metal tang of slaughterhouse. Oh, what's this? I took a deeper sniff. It was Solomon. He must've followed my scent. Breaking Raider's orders? I loped to greet him. I was a stone's throw away when a growl brought me up short. His hackles were bristling all along his shoulders, and though he was shorter than I, I could see him trying to stand taller, neck and head high. The dominating display was so unexpected I just stared at him. With a dog's muzzle and fur it was hard to convey my Are you serious? face, but enough of it translated because his growling took a sharper tone. He even lifted a lip.
I've seen this behavior before after a fallout. It was the same restless anger than had burned within me that night I stood outside Mameha's cabin, but unlike Raider's pack, I had the ability to come and go as I pleased, providing me a calming sense of control. So when Solomon—sweet, playful Solomon—leapt to punish me for some wrong I didn't commit, I turned tail and bolted instead of meeting his jaws. Solomon instantly gave chase, snarling his displeasure, and soon we were barreling breakneck under the Montana sky. I had the longer stride but he had anger, so we were evenly matched for a good stretch. Eventually his fatigue wore him out. He flagged. I dropped back alongside him. Steam rose from our backs into the chilly air, the surrounding poplar quaking their yellow leaves. The run had done him good. He walked along without snapping or biting, tongue rippling as he panted. We rested beneath the trees until we no longer sounded like wheezing buzz-saws, curled up next to each other for body heat. I didn't know why I was still around. Two humans were dead. I should've been halfway across the Absaroka mountain range by now.
I waited for Solomon to catch his breath instead.
The place I had come to call home felt tainted. Cops—the normal kind—had paid Raider a visit. Due to the 'nature' of the attacks, they thought maybe one of his 'dogs' had done it. They knew his animals frequented the town occasionally, eager for handouts. It was common knowledge Raider was a little eccentric that way: crazy middle-aged man with no wife and nine dogs? Raider somehow convinced the cops no, that was impossible, what dog could overpower, kill, and eat three healthy, strong adult men?
I stopped by the ramshackle cabin and slipped on some clothes. This time I included a hat smelling of sawdust and slightly damp mittens. It was mid-October now, and my breath curled in the air as I walked the long, lonely journey from the cabin to town. This would be it, I promised. Then I could relax my vigil. Today would mark the third day of my vigil, and still no sign of hunters. The cold sang through the threadbare sweater as I crossed into Emigrant. The Sunday church bells knelled farther away. My stomach rumbled as I passed a middle-aged couple on the street. The woman gave me a once-over as we crossed paths. Even with her dull human senses she could probably smell my cheap, borrowed clothes. I hugged the sweater closer around me and hurried away, passing the town's grocery store, the Used Antiques Today!, the little deli market that functioned as tack shop, clothing department, and hardware store all at the same time. There were few leather-faced patrons at this hour. I entered the police station, the bell above me signaling my arrival. The place smelled of copier paper, stale coffee, and the musty aroma of hot air blowing out of ancient vents. The walls still had the '70's style wood paneling and the old-fashioned metal filing cabinets. A woman in a red floral dress sat behind a desk. Her name tag said Sharon. She plastered a smile on her face when she noticed me.
"Something you need, dear?"
I'd not been someone's 'dear' in years. I must've stared at her longer than polite because the smile lessened and she developed an air of attentive disinterest, like she was looking through me, past me, as if I wasn't even there. She probably hated her job. Probably hated living here too, tired of the same old routine, but trapped in a loveless marriage. Or so I wondered.
"No, not really," I said. "Just wondering if there was if any new information on the killings. Suspects. That sort of thing."
A wrinkle appeared between her eyes, gone before it could form.
Relief flooded within me like warm milk. She knew nothing. "You know what? Forget I asked," I said just as the door of the sheriff's office opened.
"—thanks again, we'll be in touch."
Two men stepped out. At first glance they seemed nothing special, typical humans in cheap rental suits. They moved in a fashion that spoke of close familiarity, handling the sheriff with practiced ease. I was prepared to ignore them when I caught a scent. It was old, almost unrecognizable. I almost missed it, but when it clicked, the blood slid from my face and my feet rooted to the floor as if nailed there, unable to help but watch them approach. Their souls were bright and cold, like sun's glare on snow. Every human soul smelled roughly the same, but there was something slightly off about theirs. Unpleasant. Both of them had a brimstone taint, like they had rubbed arsenic on themselves. Being human, they probably weren't even aware. The taller one breezed by without a second glance, though I knew without a doubt he was very aware of my presence. Sam. Sam Winchester. His soul positively reeked of sulfur, as if it had been steeped in it. The second, older one, Dean, gave me a once-over—not in a hunter-ly way, thank all of hell; I would've died right there—but a casual male's contemplation. Then he and his brother were gone, out the door and walking to a dusty Impala.
"You okay, honey?" It was the woman, Sharon. "You look like you've seen a—"
I pushed out the door before she finished. A quick survey showed they were already gone, but that didn't matter. They were here. My biggest fear, the one I'd spent my childhood fearing, my adolescence hating, my adulthood avoiding, was confirmed. Even other hunters gave the Winchesters a wide berth. My body wanted to go in so many different directions it remained frozen in place. Relax. I had to relax. It took me a moment to get over the nauseous sea-sick feeling. I had to get out. When I realized my feet were taking me back the way towards Raider's I stopped so suddenly the guy walking behind me had to swerve. What was I doing? I couldn't go back: hunters, the Winchesters, were here. This was always the part of the story where I made my exit, where I'd be halfway across the country before the others knew what hit them. I started walking towards I-89, already thinking of traveling and food and shelter, before I gave a very non-human growl.
The powerful urge to shift plagued me all the way to Raider's house. I couldn't very well shift in broad daylight, never mind the logistics of the clothes. I had to warn Raider and the others—I owed them at least that much. Raider's house couldn't appear fast enough. I knew he was home; it was Sunday, the slaughterhouse would be closed. I knocked on the door, unable to help looking over my shoulder for the telltale glint of sunlight on windshield, or the cloying stench of gasoline from an antique engine. The dirt path was empty, but for how long?
The door opened. It was Raider.
"Oh thank all of hell. We need to talk. Now."
"Sure, of course. Come in."
He barely closed the door before I was rounding on him.
"You have to get everyone out of here, now. The Winchesters are here."
Raider gripped my arm hard and leaned in close. He reeked of the bacon he'd been eating minutes prior.
"The Winchesters? Are you sure?"
"I saw them, not half hour ago! Right in town—they were talking to the sheriff—"
"Slow down, slow down. Start from the beginning, and leave nothing out."
By the time I'd finished my account his face was drawn and grim. Before he could respond, a rumble of tires on gravel pulled up the driveway. I lunged to the window and peeled a shutter a crack. My stomach plummeted to my toes. I could only watch as the two brothers stepped out of the Impala.
"Stay calm and let me do the talking," Raider said. We both watched, stunned, as they trudged towards the front door, conversing in low tones. The knock, when it came, was terrifying, but Raider answered the door as if nothing was amiss. The Winchesters presented FBI badges and asked to be let in.
We both knew the badges were fake. Raider let them in anyway.
The brothers walked in like they owned the place, casual enough to show how alert they were. I've seen this before. Nowhere else to go, I perched on the very edge of an armchair. Sam Winchester smelled of motel shampoo and Italian salad dressing. The bitter alcohol from his brother pinched my nose, but it was the reek of gun-cleaning grease beneath it that made my hair stand on end.
"The cops already came by yesterday," Raider was saying.
"Just a few routine follow-up questions," 'Agent Keller'—Sam, said.
"Any way I can help."
It was then Dean noticed me. Dim recognition flared across his face. His focus sharpened and honed on me.
"My daughter," Raider said, before I could say anything.
Dean smiled, quick and perfunctory. "She has your eyes," he said, never taking his off mine.
Raider's were blue. Mine were brown. Ice trickled down my spine. I visualized my escape if shit hit the fan.
"Did you happen to know the victim?" Sam asked. The brother began to move away, as if perusing a museum. Raider noticed how Dean was circling behind in classic flanking maneuver but, unable to fight a war on two fronts, quarter-turned in an attempt to keep both hunters in view.
"'Course not. Word is they were drifters, hardly in town long enough to buy burgers."
Sam made a show of writing something in a little pad.
"Sheriff Kennedy says you own a lot of dogs, Mr. Sjostrom," Dean said.
"Is it a crime these days, Agent Conner?"
"No, of course not. It's just three drifters looked like they were mauled by an animal—a canine, more exactly. That doesn't seem coincidental to you?" Sam said. He was good, very good. If I hadn't known any better I would've thought him for an actual law-biding officer in search for the truth. His face was an open book of polite curiosity. It was all a lie, of course. I could smell the sharp, bitter scent of silver bullets tucked in his gun magazine.
"You show me a dog that can kill three grown men and I'll show you the Queen of England," Raider said, widening his stance.
Sam Winchester chuckled a little. "I know how crazy it sounds, and we thank you for your patience. We're just following every possible lead."
"Funny. I don't see any dog beds or kibble," Dean said, still standing right behind Raider.
"They're outdoor dogs. Always have been. I feed them meat from the shed out back, if you want to take a look," Raider said easily.
"No, that won't be necessary."
"Could we see your dogs? Y'know, check em out?"
"By all means, wait for them. Sometimes they don't come back for days if there's a fresh deer kill."
Sam Winchester smiled again, easy and flawless, and I saw how people could think him handsome. He glanced at his brother. "Actually, I think we've seen all what we've needed to see. Again, thank you for your time, Mr. Sjostrom."
Raider saw them out. When he closed the door he remained there for a solid second, hand on the knob. The porch outside rattled under the hunters' combined step, and neither of us spoke until they'd gotten into their car and pulled away.
"Well, at least they didn't stab us right here and then," Raider said after a moment. He sounded dazed.
I made an ugly sound and stood up. "Sure, yeah, well at least they didn't do that. It'll only be later when they'll have their silver. They know, Raider."
"I'm aware." He still hadn't let go of the knob.
"You have to get out of here."
"We have to defend our home, Beverly," he said, finally turning to face me. The exhausted hollows were back under his eyes, more prominent now than before. "It's ten against two."
"That's exactly what they want you to do!" I said. I began to pace. The air still smelled like them, alcohol and gasoline all rolled up in brimstone. Whatever happened to their souls, they'd seen hell. Maybe even been to hell. I wouldn't've been surprised. Raider didn't respond, eyes faraway.
"We kill them, they kill us. So we kill more of them, and they kill more of us," I said, surprised at how bitter I sounded. I peeked around a shutter. "Like a horrible merry-go-round."
"That's life," he said, and the note of resignation chilled me. "It's happened before, and it'll happen again."
"But does it have to?" I asked. I felt trapped in a belly of a beast with no exit, a beast that wanted to devour all of us with its insatiable appetite. Raider probably felt it too, probably even worse than I. He had a pack to worry about. It breathed down our necks, stinking of Winchester.
"I knew hunters would come eventually," Raider said. "No matter the precautions I took, no matter the rules I placed on my pack, something would happen, and hunter and monster would meet and kill and die. The world's not kind to humans. They're weak and lack instincts. Hunters maintain the balance; it's a system, and it's there for a reason."
"Fuck the system. Send your pack into the woods. Hide. Run."
Raider widened his stance and crossed his arms over his chest. "That's not how it's gonna happen."
"You'll kill your pack," I said. I swallowed hard when Raider took a heavy step my way. His stare was radioactive; I had to look away.
"You act like I'm just gonna roll over for them," he said, voice low and cold. "We're not. If they come our way, we'll kill them, simple as that. The numbers are in our favor. We know the terrain. You say we should run. To what end, Beverly? Once you start running, you'll never stop. Like you're doing now, actually."
My face heated from the implications and I raised my chin. "Are the rumors true?" I said, if only to land a blow of my own. "Did you kill another 'walker over a human?"
"Get out." His voice was calm. "Don't come back till you decide what you want."
"You'll kill them all," I growled, then opened the door and slammed it in his face. I tore off my clothes right then and there and shifted. I ran through the woods without stopping, wanting to put as much distance between myself and the house. Something dark was coming, like the heavy scent of ozone before a storm. The only sane thing would be to leave. I thought Raider had vision, but now I was realizing he was as proud and stupid as the rest of our kind. Let it go, I thought, but I was too close to this. I'd grown too attached. I had to find Solomon and warn him before Raider could send him on a suicide battle. I took the westerly path towards the mountain, sticking close to the tree cover, staying away from the open. A jay scolded as I passed. It smelled moments away from snowing, prickling and cold. Asides from the jays it was quiet, as if the whole world was holding its breath. Even my paws crunching on the brittle scree felt too loud. I stayed out there holed up in a little nook I'd dug for hours until the sky turned a violently red sunset.
When I smelled Solomon's scent, I barked. Never had I been so relieved to hear his answering cry. He popped out out between some white pine, his sickle tail twitching in lopsided greeting. I shifted right there, the late October air nipping like an ill-tempered goose. I could see Solomon hesitate, his ears flicking like radars. Then he stood naked, pectorals quivering as he rubbed away dirt.
"Bev? You know we're not supposed to shift in the open," he said. "I was looking for you."
"You can't go back to the house," I said. "Hunters are here."
He froze. "Hunters?"
"The worse kind. It's the Winchesters, Solomon. I told Raider but he's got this stupid idea in his head to fight them. We have head towards the Peak, or something. We have to get away."
Solomon blinked, as if he accidentally looked into the sun. "What? No. No, we have to to see what Raider says. If he says we go, we go. If he says we stay—"
I took a step forward, showing my teeth. "Do you understand, you stupid mutt? They will kill without mercy or hesitation," I said, reciting Dr. Namrata's words, the same words that followed me every day. "To them, it'd be just another day at the office. They've swatted flies bigger than you, understand? Your death is nothing to them."
A queer expression settled across Solomon's face. I wanted to slap it off. "But, it's pack. I can't abandon them."
"I know it's about the pack, but think for yourself! Please, I'm begging you."
"I am. This is my choice."
"You don't understand. I won't let you go."
Solomon just looked at me, jaw setting. Then his face relaxed. I bet sheep had that same expression when led towards the knife. "Let me go, Bev. You don't abandon family. You know I'm right."
"Family will kill you," I said.
"That's how you got away from the other hunters," he said, realization dawning across his face. Like Raider, he had that disappointed tone in his voice. "I get it. You abandoned your pack and left them to die.
"Well, I'm not like that. You don't let your family hang to dry."
"No, let me expl—"
He shifted back into his dog form, and that was that. There was a moment where I stood in his way. The time it took for him to go around would've been enough for me to tackle him to the ground. But I didn't. As blithely as the idiot he was, he padded right around me. And I let him. I watched as he disappeared into the undergrowth, unable to move, and I realized in that moment my bond with him would never be as strong as the one he had towards his pack. I was doomed as well: my urge to protect him outweighed my instincts to flee. I was trapped. Been trapped since the beginning.
"Fuck!" I shifted and ran after him. I found him wagging his damn tail.
Dread hounded my steps as we made our way down the mountainside towards Raider's house. When the scent of blood came, I didn't surprise me. It came like a metallic spy on the air, creeping along the ground. It was too far to tell whether it was human or 'walker, but I had no illusions. Solomon gave a single baying cry and exploded into a run. No! I tried to say, but it came out as a pinched yelp, lost to him. Wings seemed attached to our paws as we crashed through the forest. The closer we came, the stronger the scent grew. Instead of instilling caution, it whipped Solomon into a stupid, breakneck pace. Shadows were devouring the ground by the time we skidded at the house. Blood saturated the air, along with the hot miasma of sweat, gun smoke, and urine from uncontrolled bladders. Amelia lay gasping her last on the ground, blood from a chest wound congealing in a black puddle. I could only see Amelia's body, but Jen was screaming, struggling against Cutlass' arms. Veins stood out in his neck as he tried to keep her down in a choke hold. Besides me, Solomon was transfixed, ears flat against his head and eyes wide.
But that's not what stopped me. On his knees, his own gun pressed against the back of his skull, was the older Winchester. Steam rose from his head in the late evening air. Blood trickled from a cut above his eyebrow, but other than that, was unharmed. The cheap suit was gone. Worn jeans and an even more careworn utility coat replaced it. He was surprisingly unperturbed at the dire straight he was in, jaw set in a hard line. Sam was there too, also on his knees across from Dean, held down by Juan. Like his brother he was superficially wounded, only suffering a huge bruise on a cheek. I bared my teeth. Better if they had a bullet to their liver, or something more debilitating. Some creatures were broken under pain and torment; others were forged by it. Looking at the two of them, I had the sinking feeling they were the latter. Their souls prickled in my nose, cold enough to burn.
Dean's weapon-grade focus snapped to me. Despite my nakedness there was no lust in his gaze. It was looking at a blank wall, empty and calculating. I felt naked beyond my clothes, as if he were looking through me and judging what he saw. He smiled, hard and steady, eyes utterly untouched.
"Knew I smelled a bitch," he said. Something like mocking speculation crossed his face as he twitched his head. "You made us from the beginning."
"Where's Raider?" I asked Ace, ignoring the hunter.
"Dead. Shot right between the eyes," Ace said. His voice was unnaturally calm. I could smell the sour sweat pouring off him despite the low temperatures. He jerked his chin towards the hunter at his feet. "Sniper rifle."
"This how you get your freak on?" Dean growled. "Prancin around like a goddamn nudist colony?"
Instead of replying, Ace ground the pistol's muzzle deep into the hunter's neck. Besides a grunt and a wince, Dean got the hint. I heard Sam mutter, "Dean, shut up."
Raider, dead? I'd spoken to him this morning. There'd been bacon on his breath. Suddenly Jen's screams made sense.
"Well? Why aren't you killing them?" I said. "Pull the trigger!"
Dean glowered murder my way. Sam grunted beneath Juan's' grip.
"Yeah, kill'm," Blackcat said, hovering over Amelia's corpse.
"Kill the fuckers!"
"Everyone, calm the fuck down!" Ace roared. Then, seconds later in that still-too-calm voice, "I think we should make them know how it feels. Turn one, make the other hunt. Huh? How does that sound, you hunter piece of shit? How bout I turn your brother into one of us and make you watch?"
"Sounds like a piss-poor idea," Dean Winchester said. "You'd better kill us instead, 'cause if you hurt my brother I'll hunt every single one of you down, you sonvabitch." He was staring hard at Sam, looking for all the world like he was communicating in some secret code. I had a feeling Sam was the smarter of the two because he had yet to say a word, quiet and hulking even on his knees. I caught Dean wink at him.
"Ace, just kill them and be done with it. That's what Raider would've wanted," I said.
"Shut your goddamn piehole, bitch," Ace snarled. "You're in no—"
I saw the flash of a box cutter before I heard the grunt of pain. Where Sam got it from didn't matter, only that he was slicing Juan's hamstrings open. It wasn't silver, but it'd done its job. Juan fell with a howl, trying to hold the backs of his knees. Quicker than a striking weasel Dean snatched his gun from limp Ace's grasp and put two in his head. Ace was dead before he hit the ground, the most comical expression of surprise on his face. Cutlass released Jen. She launched herself at Dean, roaring. He shot wide and clipped her stomach but she moved as if one possessed. She shifted into her Norwegian elkhound form and they met in a tangle of limbs, her snarls loud enough to wake the dead. The hunter's cursing was no better. Sam was grappling with Marcus, and for such a tall human he moved with a coolness of one trained to fight. Marcus slammed him into a tree. Sam rolled like a paratrooper and snatched the gun Juan had dropped. Blackcat leapt to help Marcus, barking.
I yelled for Solomon but I couldn't see him. People were moving too fast, smells blending into a hot cacophony. Juan was begging me to help but I shoved his bloody hands aside and jumped over him.
"Solomon!" I shouted. I turned. There he was. He was trying to pry Summer away from Cutlasses' prone form. His head snapped up, lips forming my name. I wanted to cry from relief. "Solo—"
I felt the bullet pierce my shoulder before I heard the sharp retort of the pistol. I heard myself scream. I fell to my knees just as the tree right where my head had been exploded from a round. Pulp rained in my hair. The silver burned like a thousand snake bites, but my fear was greater than the pain. I shifted and, for a long, horrible second the world was nothing but confusion as I tore without direction into the woods. The snarls and shots receded. Screams fell away. I didn't dare stop to check my wound until night covered the scraggy forest with a thick blue blanket. The smell of my blood masked all others. A deep chill had descended on my limbs. I panted from the pain, unable to even lick the shoulder without yelping. Trying to pry the bullet out with my teeth was out of the question. It hurt too much. It was hard to think over over the white haze. Hard to focus. I was dying. Shit, I was dying.
I knew if I stayed in the open I was dead. One of the other 'walkers may've killed them, but in my heart I doubted it. The Winchesters may've regrouped by now and were on their way to finish the job. Ten lead bullets didn't sting as much as this one. How had Jen moved at all? Standing still made the shoulder stiff; when I moved again it was in a limping shamble. I had to get it out. Before I could sorry for myself, a glimmer of orange shone through the trees. Somehow my paws had led me to the woman's cabin, and here I was, at her doorstep. I limped towards the beacon. For every two steps I took it seemed to recede one. By the time I reached her porch my shoulder was a slick red ribbon and I was freezing from some internal chill. I could smell her soul inside, bright and bitter. I could see her pass from window to window. There was no choice. I'd rather die with her bullet in my brain than a Winchester one in my shoulder. I hobbled up the steps of her porch and scratched at the door.
The shadow within paused. All of ten seconds passed before the door opened a crack. By the time it fully opened I was drooling from the pain. In the vibrant orange light I thought her beautiful, her face hard as glass, unbreakable and untouchable. I limped a step. I didn't have to pretend to be pitiful as I wagged my tail, whining like a kicked puppy. With infinitesimal slowness she went to a bended knee. With equal slowness she offered her knuckles to me to smell. I made a quick show of sniffing, almost too addled with agony to pick up her scent. My shoulder was a frozen hornet's nest. I whined again, not caring like I sounded like crap scraped off a shoe bottom.
After another hesitation, Mameha let me in.
At that point ground and sky were melding together. I must've passed out, because the next thing I knew I was on my side on a table. A bowl of hot water steamed by my head. Everything was hazy, like watching a dream through foggy glasses. Something was rooting around in my shoulder, but turning my head to look was like moving deadweight. The air reeked of antiseptic and blood.
I drifted off again.
Bird calls. Woodsmoke. Mint. I came awake like a bubble surfacing mud, slowly and without grace. I could taste slime on my teeth as I rubbed my tongue over them. The just-after-dawn light sent a screwdriver through my brain. Groaning, I lifted a hand to shield my eyes—
No! I sat upright so fast black dots spun across my sight.
Though it was still very dark in the cabin, I could see Mameha sitting on the other side of the room as clear as day, rifle perched on her knees. A different kind of cold ran through me. I shot a look at the door. The sound of the hammer cocking was louder than a shotgun's blast. I froze.
"Please," I said. "Don't."
"Why shouldn't I?" Her voice was huskier than I'd imagined. She handled the words like a deer walking through a field. "One minute you are a dog, the next, a young woman."
"I won't hurt you." My head ached. My mouth tasted like a desert.
"Hurt me?" Mameha said. She shifted her grip on the rifle. "I am the one with the gun and you are naked."
"Your bullets won't kill me."
"Oh? You mean, like this one?" Without taking her eyes off me, the woman reached for something on the table next to her and held it in up between a thumb and index finger. It glinted in the light of the fireplace. The silver bullet. By reflex I touched my shoulder. Though still a little sore, I could feel the ridges of a scab; by this time tomorrow it would be completely gone. I rotated my arm. The coldness had disappeared, as if it were nothing but a bad dream. It was hard to feel relief so close to being in danger again, but it washed over me nonetheless.
"Yes, like that one," I said at last. "Silver kills things like me."
Her face was like chiseled stone, betraying nothing; she must've had hours to get over her shock. Her hair cascaded around her throat like ink. The empty space in my chest yearned.
"What are you. Demon?"
"No, of course not."
"Skinwalker. I take the form of a dog."
Again, her face was expressionless, save for a tiny—what? Flinch? I speared her with a look. I bet she'd encountered monsters before. Made sense. She probably saw her parents die via supernatural death, or something equally tragic. No wonder why she lived alone in the woods. The chances of her letting me leave without extra bullet holes were getting slimmer and slimmer with each passing moment.
I licked my lips. "Look. If you'd just let me go, I promise never to bother you again."
"Why should I believe you, skinwalker?"
Somehow she made skinwalker sound worse than any slur Dean threw at me. I don't know why I snapped. "I wasn't born this way, you know," I said. "I was human before I was turned. Honestly, it'd be kinder to eat your heart than make you into something like me."
Counter-productive, Bev, counter-productive. I breathed hard through my nose and tried in a gentler tone, "I was in a fight. A big fight. My—"
My pack. That was what I was going to say. The realization muted me.
"I should kill you now," she said, sounding for all the world like Dean had, hard and steady.
I looked at her coolly. "I told you, your bullets won't do anything to me."
"Perhaps," she said, shouldering the rifle as easy as breathing, "but could you survive two to the head? Three?"
I sat very still. There was no way I could survive something like that at such a close range. The muzzle's round black eye followed my every breath.
"Please," I said again. "Don't kill me. My—" Pack? Family? Friends? I swallowed hard. "I have to find out what happened to my people."
I desperately wished I knew what she was thinking. Though I've never been this close to her before, it was as if I were back on in the forest, watching from afar.
"Who shot you," she said, more statement than question.
"A hunter. Someone who hunts monsters like me. A pair of brothers."
"Why were they hunting you."
"One of . . . one of us killed three humans. He was defending himself."
Her eyes narrowed. "You can defend without killing."
I curled a lip, thinking about Summer's stupidity, but said nothing.
"If the hunters saw you now," she said, still keeping the rifle trained on me, "would they try to kill you?"
I recalled Dean shooting Ace and Sam with his box cutter. I resisted a shiver. "Absolutely." Where was this line of questioning going? Was she going to shoot me or not? As much as I enjoyed hearing her throaty vowels, I wasn't lying: now that I was healed, I wanted to know what happened to Solomon and the others. When I'd left them nearly all were dead or in the process of dying: Solomon, Marcus, Blackcat, Juan, and Summer were the only ones still alive. Suddenly I had a vision of the Winchesters torturing Solomon for information, toying him with silver. I've heard it happening before. I climbed to my feet. Mameha mirrored me, rifle pointed directly at my heart. Though ten feet separated us, the gulf between our two natures yawned like a chasm; I knew then there would never be elk meat or chicken left out again.
"I'm leaving now," I said quietly. My chest ached as if I'd run across the breadth of the valley. "I don't know if they're dead or alive, but I have to find out. Shoot me if you want, but I'm going out that door."
I began to walk. I made it to the wooden door with the hand-carved knob and opened it. I heard floorboards creak behind me but I didn't dare look back. The moment I entered my dog shape I bolted as if whipped. For whatever unexplainable reason no shots peppered the ground or pierced my hide. My breath surged hot in my throat as I made to the safety of the trees, my sore shoulder singing. A part of me wanted to stop, but a greater urge spurred me forward; I had to know what happened to my pack. I The lower in elevation I got, the more cautious I became, until I was stopping every hundred yards to test the air. The distant chick-a-dee-dee-dee song knelled across the trees, but there was a stillness in the air I didn't like. The cold tramped down most of the blood and gunpowder, but enough of it lingered to give me a chill. Not a branch stirred. Any scent of the Winchesters were hours old; they were gone. My paws crunched the grass obscenely loud as I descended into Raider's backyard. The hush was deafening. There were no bodies, only dark stains where they'd bled.
A deeper inspection revealed Solomon's scent. It, like the others, was hours old and bloodstained. It led away from the house. Broken twigs and paw prints marked the path he'd taken. Following it took me away from the house, through the forest; not ten minutes passed before it ended on the edge of the Yellowstone River, so faint it was almost a whisper. I braved the chilled waters to sniff the opposite bank for fifteen minutes, but there was no scent or sign of Solomon anywhere. I returned to the first side and traveled downstream for a quarter mile, stopping to smell the reeds and mud every fifty yards. Nothing. The morning sky above was overcast, the colour of lead; the empty horizon yawned in every direction unbroken. I barked and waited for a call, but there was no answer save for the echo of my own cry. A northwesterly wind brought the promise of snow, but no Solomon.
The trail was dead.
I returned to the last place Solomon had been and sat there until the scent faded away entirely.
I left the river and found myself headed straight for Emigrant, as if I was an alien thing outside my body, somehow separate from it all. I didn't fight it. When you're in pain, they say, that's when you focus, sharp as a knife. They were right. Everything stood out in crystal gray focus, even down to the snowflakes filling my vision. It was clear what I needed to do, simple. Death was very possible. Me against two hardened hunters? Winchesters, no less? The chances of walking away was slim to none. But home was dead. The emptiness inside me was both empowering and terrifying; I was now a creature with nothing to lose. Solomon was gone. The pack was gone. Everything I'd cherished for those brief years was gone, and now the cold hole within me burned. I embraced the rage the entire way back to town, welcoming the clarity it lent. Hate was simple. Hate was good. It would tide me through what was to come, be it my last. It's always been that way, hasn't it? I thought. Hatred. Violence. Killing. Raider was right: no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try to pretend, it always comes back to this. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Solomon the day Summer killed the three humans, but I shied from the memory.
By the time I slinked around the sleepy houses and along the main road not an hour had passed since I left the river, but it felt as if years had crawled by. Though it was still morning it felt like late afternoon, the sun dark and nonexistent. A storm was coming, a big one; the air was electric with it. Snowflakes were coming down harder, enough to cover the asphalt in a thin dry film. There was only one restaurant worth calling itself a diner in Emigrant, and I wasn't surprised to spy the two of them sitting by the window, elbows deep in pancakes and fruit salads and coffee. They ate like they hadn't killed nine 'walkers the night before. I gnawed on the small kernel of hatred, keeping to the bushes, still in my dog shape. When the Winchesters finished they left the diner with its garish All U Can Eat Breakfast Only $9.99! and made their way back to a motel. Their room was on the second floor. The dark Impala was parked outside beneath it, the windows collecting snow.
Ace's last words hissed in my ear. Yeah, that'd be vengeance, wouldn't it. Turn one into a monster and make his brother hunt him down. Not so black-and-white to kill then, huh? Not so fucking easy.
If I took them both on at once I'd be disemboweled mush in heartbeats, but if they left, finding them again would be next to impossible. It had to happen now. I crouched beneath a nearby truck and ducked behind a wheel rim, wrinkling my muzzle at the oily stench around me. I kept my eyes glued on their door, heart a slow beat under my ribs. It was the rabbit hunt all over again, time becoming molasses, only now it was unclear who was hunter and who was hunted. An indeterminate length of time passed before Dean Winchester walked out alone, duffel bag under one arm. He squinted from the snow falling in his eyes as he opened the Impala's trunk, whistling. I saw my chance. I darted from beneath the truck and rushed at him. He must've heard me because he dropped the bag and spun around, hand flying to the gun tucked in his pant's waistband.
He was fast, very fast. But I was closer than he realized.
We met in a clash of bodies, momentum giving me enough force to topple him over. I could smell the bacon he'd been eating half an hour ago, and all I could think about was Raider. Dean grunted as he struggled to avoid my snapping jaws, one hand fisting the fur on my nape in an iron grip. Pain raced along my shoulder like wildfire as he flipped me over so we were chest-to-back; I was sure this was how he killed Jen. The gun-hand moved to press against my ribs, and I knew he was going to use my own body as a silencer. It was the moment I'd been waiting for. When the bare hand approached I torqued my head enough to engulf it between my jaws. My teeth clamped down on the cold flesh, tongue pressed against both the calloused palm of his hand and the gun's body. I could taste the salt of his sweat and the bitter tang of cleaning grease.
I had him.
He froze. I froze. His heartbeat had been cold and even against my back, only slightly elevated from the struggle. It quickened now as adrenaline coursed through his system as he realized exactly what the fuck was going to happen to him in the next couple seconds. Get it now? I thought, unable to speak in my dog body. Get it? In the seconds it'll take you to kill me I'll bite as reflex. You lose.
I snarled low in my throat, relishing how still the hunter had become. I had yet to break the skin, my teeth just indenting the flesh. His hand on my neck dropped away and I twisted to my paws, never letting go of my prize. I was a half a yard from his face, close enough to see the muscles working in his jaw as he clenched his teeth, that blank no-look from before returning. I knew he recognized me; he knew me perfectly well. I heard a strangled "Dean!" before footsteps pounded towards us. Sam skidded into view, hair disheveled. He whipped out a gun and clicked the hammer faster than his brother had, aiming straight at me.
"Let him go or I put a bullet in your brain," Sam Winchester said, voice as frigid as the wind blowing around us.
Do it and Dean becomes like me, I thought. You've already have your pound of flesh. I snarled around the hand and gun in my mouth.
"Whoa, Sam, easy," Dean said, never taking his gaze off me. I didn't know why I hadn't bitten him yet. He was so pliable between my jaws. An ounce of pressure more and my saliva would mingle with his blood, just as it'd done to me all those years ago. The power was a heady mixture. I struggled not to lose my focus.
"You don't want to do this," Dean said, voice like gravel as he stared hard at me. Even with the threat of monsterhood looming on his horizon, he was still as steady as he'd been at the house. Only the faintest tremor in his fingers betrayed him. "Don't. Whatever you're thinking, whatever you're feeling—it ain't worth it."
The future was all so clear, unraveled in perfect sequence: I would bite down and steal Dean's soul, Sam would shoot me, I would die. Maybe he would shoot his brother right then and there too, or wait until Dean couldn't take being a monster anymore. The cycle of violence would be complete once again, and the beast would have its bloody meal. I had no choice: even if I let go, I would have no leverage to escape. They'd shoot me on sheer principle. Time was stretching like taffy, pressuring me to to what I'd came to finish.
The story never changes.
"Hey, you're not gonna shoot that dog, are you?"
Sam, Dean, and I all jerked our heads towards the cleaning lady that had stopped to stare at us. I dropped Dean Winchester's hand and bolted. Someone shouted behind me but I didn't care; I tucked into a run so fast I was nearly creamed by two cars crossing the main street. I didn't dare stop until I was well past the town's outskirts, and even then I kept glancing over my shoulder. I climbed a grassy knoll and waited, panting, only then realizing how badly I was shaking. The horizon was empty. They hadn't followed. Alleviation flooded me like heated radon, and I had to sit down from the dizziness. I don't know how long I stayed like that, yo-yo'ing between regret and relief. I had failed. I didn't get my vengeance. Solomon and others were still gone. Dean Winchester was still human. I ate some snow to remove the last taste of the hunter and gun from my mouth, crunching through grass and ice. I was still eating snow when I caught the familiar scent of a skinwalker.
I couldn't believe it. I got up and turned around.
It was Summer, shivering in his greyhound form, tail tucked between his legs as he approached.
All I could do was stare. Summer was alive? Alive when Solomon perished? After being the cause of everything? The irony was not lost on me, but I was too pissed to laugh. When he came crawling, whining, sniveling, I lost it. I turned on him with every intention of ripping him apart, but his form was faster than mine. He tore across the valley like hellfire on his tail, a long gray blur of desperation. I chased him as long as I could before giving up, wheezing hard enough to make my chest ache. The pain beneath my ribs didn't go away, even after I fell to a stumbling walk. The snow was starting to whip around in earnest now, enough to sting my eyes and nose. The horrible sensation wouldn't let go. When the feeling built to an insurmountable pressure I howled for the first time in years, breaking my silence to vent what could only be described as loss. When I finished I felt emptier than before, dearth of anger or even sorrow. There was a languor present where none had been before, and I knew it would a long time before it left completely.
I made the slow, limping journey back towards the one mountain in twenty clicks, completely avoiding Raider's house. I was sure the local authorities would investigate his disappearance once he failed show up to work; maybe they'd even find the bodies the Winchesters had hidden in the woods. Maybe they'd even find Solomon's corpse. I doubted that. What was done was done; I would find no peace here again. I was half-way up the mountain before I realized I was still following the trail to the woman's cabin, the same one I'd taken for five years. I could've been blind and I'd still recognize it. Despite my promise to her I allowed myself this last indulgence, this one last visit. I made sure to stay behind some trees as I peered at its familiar lines. White smoke chugged from the tin vent, smelling faintly of the breakfast she'd cooked over it.
I was about to leave when a metallic glimmer caught my eye.
There, on the porch, was a bowl of fresh meat.