For as long as I can remember I've known how different I was from other kids. My mother, Ashlynn, didn't read fairy tales to me growing up. It was pointless to do so when I already knew there were worse things out there than the big bad wolf and a witch who went around putting girls to sleep with poisoned apples so they could only be woken with a kiss. Werewolves were real monsters in our lives and there were stories of casters—our name for those with the ability to use magic—who made a poison able to cause a shifter to go mad enough to kill their own kin. But then, that was back before the supernaturals had stopped fighting in order to avoid being wiped out by each other as well as the humans.
The point is, it wasn't some big secret between us. Shifters made no effort to hide their other halves from their kids; my mother included.
I can't even count the number of times she took me out into the forest, away from prying eyes, so she could shift and hunt while I climbed trees and swam in the river that ran between the mountains. Of course, those days were probably the most dangerous of my life, but nothing bad ever seemed to happen.
I was waiting for my mom to come back, tracing patterns in the dirt, when a bobcat came slinking through the trees. It paused when it noticed me there, eyes and ears alert. At that time, I was still young so—naïve to the dangers of it—and the relatively small wildcat was almost as big as me. Being reckless didn't mean too much to me then. Unconscious of the danger, I got up from my seat on the ground and tried to coax the bobcat into coming closer. To me, it just seemed like a really big house cat. It growled when I got too close, something I didn't really understand too much then. But I stopped, cocking my head to the side and looking at the silly creature. The bobcat growled for a second longer before it suddenly stopped and darted off back into the brush with its tail between its legs. Or it would have if its tail was long enough. When I told my mother about it later, though, she only looked at me with a puzzled and amused smile before turning away and asking what I wanted for dinner.
Growing up, I didn't always understand some of the things my mother would say or do, but I loved her more than anyone. On the other hand, I never really knew my father. The only thing I can really remember about him was that his name is Callan. But that was more from the fact that my mom had told me about him. I haven't seen my father since I was young. Before I turned five, my mother and I lived with the Southern Clan. Things worked differently there than the way I now know the other clans do. Everything was about power. It was a constant struggle between the shifters that lived there; about who was and wasn't in charge. Which was the reason I was born. My parents hadn't had me because they loved each other. In my mom's case, she just wanted a baby. My father, however, only needed an heir. When he had found out I was a girl instead of the boy he wanted he hadn't stuck around to claim me as his child. Instead, he'd gone onto the next willing woman who would give him a son. She never really showed it, but I knew my mother was angry—or perhaps heartbroken might be a better word for it—that he hadn't at least cared enough to visit me on occasion.
So, she had taken me and left. When she did talk about it, she told me it was because she was tired of the male run society of the clan; that she wanted more for me than that. But I knew better. It wasn't just for my sake that she had been hurt.
The Western Clan had welcomed us when we arrived there. Unlike the Southern Clan, the shifters in the west didn't all live in the same place. They were spread out over the western coast with, usually, only one family in any given area. Separated, the shifters had integrated themselves into the human world more fully as opposed to depending on their clan for protection like the others. I grew up in Edmunds, Washington with my mother; far away from the others that stayed mostly to the south where it was warmer. It was a short drive into Seattle where my mother found a job as a secretary but a trip on the ferry allowed for easy access to the wide expanse of the Olympic Forest to the west so my mother had room to run when she needed to.
We never really had a whole lot despite the money my mom made from selling off any of the artwork she created in her free time. To us, living simply was enough knowing that if we used the money my mother had saved over her century and a half of life it would only draw more attention.
Nevertheless, I never felt left out when my friends came to school showing off their new toy or the cell phone they got despite the fact they were still elementary school. Maybe it was something that was engrained into my mind as a shifter, but I couldn't really bring myself to care about those kinds of things. I would much rather spend a day outside than stuck in the house playing on the computer or watching television. Also, my mother and I were very close compared to those human friends I made and their parents. She didn't work so late into the night that I never saw her and, every Sunday, while most people were in church or relaxing at home the two of us would spend the day in the woods together. We would drive out to this place where there was a turn off in the road, park the car, and then head straight into the trees on foot. Neither of us was afraid of getting lost. Finding our way through the forest was an instinct embedded into our brains as much as a baby's urge to cry when it's hungry.
The month after I turned nineteen, my mother died. She was killed in a car accident driving home from work later than normal. A shard of glass had broken off from the windshield when it shattered on impact and hit her straight in the heart, killing her instantly. Anywhere else and she would have lived. But I never claimed to be lucky and that day I knew why.
Thankfully, my mother had set up a bank account to help get me through college and had given me access to her 'family' account with the money she had acquired throughout her long life. There was more than enough money to get me through my degree at U-Dub and live comfortably for a few years after as long as I didn't spend it unnecessarily. That didn't make everything better, though. My mom was my best friend; the only one I could really talk to about the other part of our lives and she wouldn't even be there for my first shift.
The only mementos I had left of that life were my memories and the tattoo etched into my skin. Usually, shifters weren't given their tattoos until after their first change. It was like some sort of rite of passage for us. They used silver to burn our skin so that the scar never fades while they test our ability to handle pain at the same time. Plus, the tattoos were supposed to represent the shifters place among the people and that wasn't decided until after we shifted.
My mother had a friend who worked on the tattoos for the clans, though, and she'd pulled in a favor to get her to do mine. It was simple compared to the elaborate design that covered the span of my mother's back. Just two swords crossed with 'nihtweard' repeated around the edges. I couldn't tell you what it meant; only that you couldn't find it in the dictionary. Another shifter might have been able to. Though, most didn't speak it any more, the words are still used. I was just too young when we left the South to learn it.
It wasn't as painful for me as it probably was for other shifters, but it hurt like a bitch. She had to use a silver knife to cut into my skin instead of just burning into the top layer. Obviously, it's useless to say that it hurt. When my mother's friend, a caster, had finished with the tattoo, she sat back to admire her work. After a second, she looked at me with a smirk and said I was destined for great things. I didn't know what that meant and I never asked. My mother had looked proud when she'd seen the finished tattoo; like it confirmed some belief she had. She never told me what that was.
That wasn't the only thing she left out in all our talks, however. As open as we were with each other, there is something my mother forgot to tell me before she died. Something that could very well have led to my undoing. Something that will lead to a choice I never knew I would have to make.
Something completely harmless.
And altogether too dangerous.
It all started because of a dream, as weird as that sounds.
When I was a kid, about eleven or twelve, I had a dream. It was so vivid it was hard to believe it wasn't real when I finally woke up.
The dream started pretty simply. I was looking at an open room with tables making a circle around a raised platform that had a longer table in the middle of it. Half walls surrounded it on all sides, slid open so it was visible to the tables below but still private. And not a single person was there.
At first, I thought I would just be staring at an empty room for the entire night. Then, two people burst through the door. The first was a man. Tattoos were visible on his neck and more were hidden under the collar of his shirt. He was wearing a tux with the shirt untucked, tie loose around his neck. Behind him, a girl hurried in. She had yellow blond hair pulled back into an elegant braid, a coppery tint to it under the lights, and a strapless white dress covering her body. It didn't really take me that long to realize the girl was supposed to be me when I got older. The eyes were a dead giveaway.
The two of them had wide smiles as they made their way through the maze of tables toward the platform. For some reason, the guy's face was blurred as if I wasn't supposed to know who he was. Or maybe it was because I'd never seen him before. All I knew was that he was someone important.
He led me up the three short steps to the platform before pulling me behind one of the walls. I saw his lips move but the words never reached my ears, despite the silence. There was a second where we just stood there before the man leaned down and kissed my future self. At the same time, a door opened nearby and we sprung apart before darting out the opposite way, laughing the whole time.
Just as I was thinking that was the end of it, however, the scene sort of shifted to the wall were a plaque was hanging from where it could be seen around the room. Alone, the dream probably would have been harmless, but the words on that plaque stayed with me long after I had forgotten the details of the actual dream.
"Congratulations Greg and Emma"